Nearly 10,000 animals landed in the Tulsa Animal Welfare shelter last year.
That’s 27 a day.
That’s too many. City officials and animal welfare advocates agree on this.
It’s the problems those numbers create at the facility — overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, a high euthanasia total, low employee morale — and the city’s response to them that continue to complicate the conversation.
People such as Cindy Bucher, the shelter’s volunteer coordinator, and Denise Tate, a former volunteer, are frustrated that the city hasn’t done more faster to improve conditions there.
“There needs to be a big shake-up there, and I would say from the top down,” Tate said. “A fresh, new, modern approach. They did it in Oklahoma City. It can be done. It’s just the same old people doing the same old thing.”
Bucher and Tate met with Mayor G.T. Bynum’s chief of staff, Jack Blair, in January to share their concerns, which included dirty kennels, dogs and cats without water, a lack of vets and continuous employee turnover.
They never heard back from Blair.
That disappointed Bucher, and although she’s grateful for the mayor’s efforts to improve the city’s animal welfare services, she questions the pace of change and whether the plan is sufficient.
“The mayor’s reform plan for our city shelter is a great first step, but I am disappointed in the number of kennel positions added,” said Bucher, who has volunteered at the shelter for more than 20 years. “Tulsa Animal Welfare has needed kennel help for months if not years.
“Relying on community service to help staff the shelter is an unreliable and undependable source of labor.”
Tate, like many other local animal advocates, says the root of the problem is the city’s lack of a comprehensive, affordable spay and neuter program.
“I have never lived in a city like that where there were stray animals running all around, where on a daily basis I would see stray animals loose,” said Tate, who now lives out of state.
Blair doesn’t dispute Bucher’s and Tate’s claims about conditions at the shelter, nor, he says, would he minimize their concerns.
“But we are taking it seriously and making tangible progress,” Blair said. “And we’ve got a lot to do; by any measure we’ve still got a lot to do.”
The city can point to numerous initiatives it has undertaken in the past eight months to make life better for Tulsa’s pet population.
The shelter helped find homes for dozens of animals Saturday when it took part in the nationwide Clear the Shelters Day.
Bynum unveiled an eight-point animal welfare reform program in October that includes a citizen advisory board to provide oversight, advice and advocacy pertaining to the city’s animal welfare policies.
In January, the City Council approved funding for 12 new staff positions, and the city will use a grant from the Watershed Animal Fund to hire a community outreach and volunteer coordinator, as well as a pet diversion specialist and helpline coordinator.
Since October, the shelter has seen a net gain of 10 employees, leaving 12 of its 42 positions unfilled.
“I think the mayor has been clear,” Blair said. “He expects this to achieve results — 36% increase in funding (this fiscal year) and 45% increase in staffing comes with high expectations for demonstrative improvements.”
Part of the challenge, Blair said, is that the city is attempting to fix problems that have been decades in the making.
“You can say that six months is maybe not enough time to see that (staff and funding changes) fully implemented,” Blair said. “But that is going to come into sharper focus as we continue to work this plan.”
Bynum, Blair and other city officials are betting that a major overhaul of the shelter will help lead to better treatment of animals and better working conditions for employees.
The city already has $2.7 million for the project, and Tulsa voters will be asked to approve $2 million more in the Improve Our Tulsa renewal package. The goal is to begin design work sometime in the fall.
“We do need to really optimize the money we’re going to have for facility expansion, improvements and organization — make more extensive use of the space we have and do more on the clinic side, the kennel side and intake to improve efficiency,” Blair said.
Jean Letcher, manager of Tulsa Animal Welfare, knows a shiny new building won’t solve all of the city’s animal welfare woes. And it certainly won’t fix the spay and neuter crisis.
Even strict enforcement of the city code, which requires that all dogs and cats 6 months or older be spayed or neutered, won’t do that.
Like most issues involving animal welfare in the city, creating an effective spay and neuter program will take a comprehensive plan that relies not only on city resources but private animal welfare groups, she said. And that includes education programs and more dollars.
“We have not identified a sustainable way … to do free spay and neuter because of the cost,” Letcher said. “Even if we had vets and volunteers, you are still looking at between $50 and $60 an animal, hard costs.
“And where is that money going to come from?”
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